BELTON – Tied for sixth place in District 8-6A at 1-4 entering Wednesday night's game at Tiger Gym, Belton and Copperas Cove essentially were in desperation mode – and that showed.
After cutting the host Tigers' lead to 52-46 late in the third quarter, the Bulldawgs had prime opportunities to get closer but missed six consecutive free throws and seven of eight. However, Belton struggled to put Cove away by committing nine turnovers during an intense fourth quarter, keeping the outcome in doubt into the final minutes.
But in crunch time, the steady hands of Belton senior guard Kiron Griffin Jr. – described by his coach as “the toughest kid in this district” – got the job done in a must-have situation.
Griffin scored 17 of his team-leading 22 points in the second half – highlighted by nine in the final 4:51 – and the Tigers shot 13-of-16 on free throws in the fourth quarter to stave off the hard-charging Bulldawgs for a 77-65 victory.
“We got together and Coach kept telling us to slow the ball down. Nobody needed to rush or throw the ball away,” said Griffin, whose squad bounced back from losing a large lead at home in falling 37-35 to then-No. 12 Ellison last Friday. “Most definitely (tonight was a must-win game). Even though we lost to Ellison, we gained a lot of confidence. We didn't want the same thing to happen tonight.”
Cove sliced Belton's lead to 63-58 with 3:27 remaining, but the Tigers (13-12, 2-4) outscored the Bulldawgs (22-6, 1-5) 14-7 the rest of the way to secure the crucial win.
“We have a team full of senior guards, so we're stressing that we want to play fast but we don't want to be in a hurry. So, just relax,” said Belton coach Trovocie Jackson, who got 18 points from senior swingman Dontori Lott and 10 from senior reserve guard Kyle O'Bannon. “We wanted to continue to be aggressive, but Cove speeded us up some.”
Senior guard Neyland Block scored a game-high 23 points and junior guard Quinton Ford had 18 for Cove, but no other Bulldawg produced more than six points. Cove was hindered by 11-of-19 shooting on free throws, notably 5-of-12 in the second half.
“That's something we were definitely talking about. At the end of the third quarter we missed four in a row. It should've been 52-50 going into the fourth. That hurt us,” said Cove coach Billy White Jr., whose team has lost five consecutive games since starting the season 22-1. “We have eight games left and need to play every game like it's a playoff game.”
The Bulldawgs came out hot from long range, with Block making two 3-point shots and Justus Honea one for an 11-3 lead with 4½ minutes gone. However, Lott's combination of size and athleticism gave Cove fits as he made two jump shots and two inside baskets in a 10-point first quarter before Elijah Eddings' fast-break layup put Belton up 14-13 after 8 minutes.
The Tigers ripped off a 15-0 run to start the second quarter. Freshman Kayden Downs made a 3 before Eddings attacked the hoop for two buckets and made a 3, pushing Belton's advantage to 29-13. It was 36-19 after another Downs 3, but Ford-led Cove finished with a 10-2 spurt to trim the Tigers' halftime lead to 38-29.
The Bulldawgs kept Lott scoreless in the second quarter and held him to two points in the third, and quick 5-foot-6 guard Tyrese Cooley led a strong charge that had Cove trailing only 52-46 with 1:44 left in the third. But Block and Jacob Carter then each missed two free throws and Belton took its six-point edge into the fourth.
Free throw woes continued to plague Cove as Ford then missed two foul shots and Jyhlil Rice went 1-for-2. A recurring ankle injury bothered Lott in the fourth, and a slew of Tigers turnovers helped Cove pull within 54-51 on Rice's layin with 5:34 left.
But Griffin answered with a layup and two free throws, then Jordan Ellis and Griffin buried 3-pointers before Lott made two foul shots for a 68-58 lead with 2:12 remaining. The Bulldawgs couldn't get closer than eight after that.
Belton travels to Harker Heights on Friday, while Cove hosts Waco Midway.
- Belton 77, Copperas Cove 65
- Killeen 60, Harker Heights 57
- San Angelo Central 64, Shoemaker 63
- Waco Midway 58, No. 13 Ellison 51
- San Angelo Central at Ellison, 6 p.m.
- Belton at Harker Heights, 7 p.m.
- Killeen at Shoemaker, 7 p.m.
- Waco Midway at Copperas Cove, 7 p.m.